“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”
“Educate a girl and you educate an entire family.”
Marian Wright Edelman
The recognition of education as the main vehicle for the upliftment of girls led to a series of initiatives, to establish in Ceylon a school for education for girls in English. Beginning in 1857 right through to 1875, Bishopsgate school as it was first known was carefully fostered and nurtured by a succession of Christian missionaries and their spouses, making every effort to create an environment of security at a time when education for girls was not considered a right or even a requirement.
Bishop Chapman, the Bishop of Colombo from 1845 – 1862, took great interest in expanding the scope of education in Ceylon. Along with his wife Frances Chapman, a small school was set up first in Mutwal in their own home. It is to Mrs. Chapman that Ceylon largely owes the beginnings of women’s education. Parents felt a sense of confidence to send their daughters to be educated at the school that was directly under her influence, since she and her daughters taught in the school.
In its early fledgling stage, the school faced many challenges when Mrs Chapman had to return to England due to ill health. The school had to be temporarily closed and reopened in 1875 with Mrs Drew as Principal. Bishop Copleston who came to Ceylon as the 4th Bishop of Colombo in 1876, devoted his energies to the running of the school and subsidised the school’s expenses from the Bishop’s Special Fund. Subsequently, the school shifted from Mutwal to Fairfield House on Darley Road in 1885, marking a new beginning in the history of the school.
On October 25, 1887, three Sisters of St. Margaret; Sisters Joanna Mary, Bridget and Verena arrived in Colombo from East Grinstead, Sussex in England. From December 1887, Sister Joanna Mary, with the assistance of Mrs Matthew, wife of the Vicar, was asked to help run the school.
In 1887, Venerable Walter Edmund Matthew, Vicar of St. Michael’s Church, Polwatte, invited the Sisters of St. Margaret to establish a branch in Ceylon. The Vicar’s vision was that a dedicated band of Sisters could play a significant role in the management of the Girls’ School, amongst other missionary work.
These years formed a watershed in the history of the school. The Principal and teachers who had come to Ceylon to fulfil the goals of Christian and colonising missions often had to leave with bewildering rapidity, due to ill health, inability to adapt to the tropical climate, and personal reasons. The connection with the Sisters of St. Margaret was then to afford the school important years of stability. St. Margaret’s was able to supply a long line of dedicated Principals who guided the school for an unbroken period of 60 years.
In 1892, Bishopsgate School moved from Darley Road to a property that was previously a cinnamon estate near Boyd Place. With this, there was also a change in the name of the school since it had moved out of the Bishop’s private residence, and was called Bishop’s College. The school had seventy pupils on the roll.
The Sisters played a pivotal role in inculcating the students and teachers of Bishops College, with the tenets of charity, community spirit and public service upheld by the motto of Bishop’s College itself Non Sibi Sed Omnibus –Not for Self but for All.
Changes came rapidly now in the development of the school to upgrade the education standards of the school. In many fields, the Sisters were ahead of their time. A decision was made that “No teacher may under any circumstance strike a pupil unless the Principal should find it necessary as a definite punishment, in which case it must be reported the same day to the parents of the child.” This was indeed a bold and innovative measure, progressive even by today’s standards when corporal punishment is not unknown in some schools.
Of particular historical interest, is that some past pupils of the school met and with the Bishop’s approval they founded the Past Pupils Association on December 5th 1896.
The building of a chapel on the school premises commenced in 1895, and in January 1900, the chapel was dedicated by the Bishop to St. Agnes, the Roman virgin and Martyr of the 4th century A.D.
The 20th century which had begun for Bishop’s College with 47 children on the roll, soon increased to 90 in 1906. Buildings too necessarily needed extension and expansion. Bishop’s College was now run on English Public School lines and became one of Ceylon’s leading girls’ schools. The book “20th Century Impressions of Ceylon” edited by Arnold Wright, published in 1907, refers to the school as “A high school, considered to be one of the best colleges in the island.”
In 1908 Sister Letitia arrived from England and took over as Principal. Her tenure was a long one of 16 years and gave the school firm direction and stability. During this period, the curriculum expanded rapidly, with First Aid classes called the Ambulance Class being conducted, Drill was introduced in 1896, Drama classes became a school fixture and playlets were performed at the prize giving becoming an annual feature. Funds were collected and a tennis court was built in 1913.
Although Bishop’s College was a Christian mission school with the explicit goal of upholding the values of the Church, it is quite evident that the Sisters’ of St. Margaret adopted a more pluralistic approach to religion. In 1909, the 100 or more students on the roll showed a diversity of nationality, race and religion – among the students were Sinhalese, Burgher, Tamil, Parsi and Moor students.
During the tenure of Sister Mary Kathleen’s stewardship as Principal of the school from 1933 – 1942, it was a period of steady and vigorous progress in all spheres of school activity. The expansion of the school took place with the purchase of Arncliffe – a large house adjoining Bishop’s College with two road frontages on Boyd Place and General’s Lake Road. This allowed the school to expand with living quarters for the Principal and other Sisters, resident teachers, dormitories for hostellers, bathrooms, toilets, sick room and a dispensary, in addition to the previous buildings which housed, the Principal’s office, staff room, classrooms, library, school hall, kindergarten, domestic science room, refectory, toilets, kitchen and staff quarters.
The concept of total education was actively nurtured. The focus on both academic excellence along with a wide range of extra-curricular activities meant that a student was encouraged to have a well-rounded experience of subjects. The medium of instruction was English, and along with English literature and English grammar, a second language of French, Sinhalese or Tamil was offered as subjects. History, Geography, Botany, Mathematics, Hygiene and Physiology, Mechanics, Art, Needlework and Domestic Science were featured in the curriculum. Popular non-academic activities included Swimming, Ballet, Singing, Netball, Tennis, Athletics, Guiding, and Drama among other activities. In 1933, it is recorded that Sister Mary Kathleen accompanied 12 senior girls on a school trip to Anuradhapura, Pol
lonnaruwa, Mihintale and Kalawewa, evidence of inculcating an appreciation of local history and culture.
Sister Mary Kathleen was well-loved, and there remain several letters of appreciation written in her honour, which speak of her vision and great devotion to the school and its pupils.
Soon after the death of Sister Mary Kathleen, an atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed with the shadow of the Second World War cast on Colombo. The war was getting closer with the possibility of a Japanese invasion and air raid precautions meant that for a short period, students were moved to Fernhill on Bahirawakanda in Kandy. The kindergarten section of the school was requisitioned by the military and Peiris House was taken over as quarters for officers. Ceylon, however, did not become a theatre of war, except for the short period of Japanese bombings that occurred. As a result, the war did not impose too many hardships on the school, except for a few memories of blackouts and food rations. Recollections by past pupils speak of happy, fun-filled, carefree days at Fernhill.
In August 1945 the main hall was handed back to the school by the Army. The following years saw the transition of Ceylon from a colony to an independent nation in 1948. The socio-political changes and a more nationalist outlook within the country were to have a significant impact on the school in the coming years. The school was almost 75 years old by then and would now see a period of constancy ushering in a period of glorious achievement in academics, sports and other extra-curricular activities. In 1954 several girls were admitted to the university on their performance at the examinations.
By 1955, the Sisters of St. Margaret handed over the running of the school to the first non-missionary Principal Miss L.Y. Pode marking the beginnings of a new chapter in school affairs. The Sisters of St. Margaret who had nurtured and guided the destiny of Bishop’s College, through two World Wars and the transition from a colony to an independent Ceylon, left an indelible impression on the school. To this day, the connection between the Convent at Polwatte and the administration remains strong. The annual oration in memory of the Sisters of St. Margaret is a testament to the memory of the dedication of the Sisters’ and the gratitude of an establishment that has changed the course of education of girls in Ceylon. Tens of thousands of pupils who have walked through the gates of Bishop’s College are proud beneficiaries of the vision and dedication of these women missionaries.
The list of dedicated Principals who have ably guided the destiny of students and the institution of Bishop’s College is several.
As we begin our journey towards celebrating 150 years of being one of Sri Lanka’s leading girls’ schools in 2025, Bishop’s College looks back at the men and mostly the women whose hard work, dedication and vision made it all possible. The coming months will see a series of events, remembering and giving thanks to the numerous Principals, administrators, teachers, parents, staff and students who have impacted Bishop’s College and whose lives have been enriched as a result of that experience.
In the words of Sister Mary Kathleen who wrote in a letter: “Loyalty to one’s old school seems to me to be of the same nature as our duty to our parents, and when they need help, we must be ready to give it.” This sentiment encapsulates the motto of our school: Non Sibi Sed Omnibus-Not for Self but for All. May the celebrations be grand and memorable and may the success of Bishop’s College go from strength to strength.
Principals and Vice Principals of Bishop’s College
Principals of Bishop’s College
|January 1875 – April 1882||Miss Down (Mrs Henry Drew)|
|1885 -1886||Miss Madden|
|1887||Miss A M Best|
|April 1894||Miss Watson|
|April 1894||Miss Perkins (Acting)|
|1895-1905||Sister Bridget Margaret|
|1905- May 1908||Sister Bertha Mary|
|May 1908-1924||Sister Letitia|
|1924- December 1927||Sister Eva|
|1928||Sister Mary Kathleen (Acting)|
|1929- March 1930||Sister Marguerite|
|October 1930||Sister Ada Mary (Acting)|
|January 1931-September 1932||Sister Geraldine Mary|
|September 1932-March 1941||Sister Mary Kathleen|
|March 1941-December 1944||Sister Mabel|
|January 1945-November 1949||Sister Celestine|
|November 1949-August 1955||Sister Gabriel|
|September 1955-October 1957||Miss L Y Pode|
|October 1957-August 1959||Mrs Samarasekara (Acting)|
|September 1959-December 1978||Miss A C B Jayasuriya|
|January 1979-April 1988||Mrs G Dias Abeysinghe|
|April 1988-May 2003||Mrs L Jayasuriya|
|June 2003-April 2011||Mrs H Bibile|
|May 2011- February 2021||Miss Sharmila Gunatilleke|
|April 2021-to date||Mrs Chemali Goonetileke Herath|
Vice Principals of Bishop’s College
|1951-January 1955||Miss L Y Pode|
|January 1955||Miss Kilvert (Acting)|
|September 1955-December 1956||Mrs Budd Janze|
|January 1957-October 1957||Mrs T Samarasekara|
|June 1969-December 1979||Mrs B Jayasinghe|
|January 1980-December 1988||Mrs L Jayasuriya|
|March 1989-December 1996||Mrs M Hills|
|July 1997- June 2002||Mrs N Wickramasinghe|
|July 2002-December 2013||Mrs M C P Cooray|
|January 2014 -March 2021||Mrs Chemali Goonetileke Herath|
|September 2021- to date||Ms Chrishnika Galbadage|